Kevin George graduated from Miami University of Ohio in 1988 with a bachelor's degree in communications, but he came back a quarter century later for another education of sorts.
The global CMO of Beam is part of a surprisingly large contingent of senior marketers who graduated from the school north of Cincinnati, many of whom returned to campus Feb. 18 for Miami Rocks, an event hosted by the university's Farmer School of Business.
Mr. George and alums Kyle Schlegel, now VP-marketing of Louisville Slugger maker Hillerich & Bradsby, and Doug Van De Velde, senior VP-marketing at Kellogg Co., presented business challenges for panels of students to solve. They were joined by a host of other Miami grads now in the marketing industry, including Twitter President-Revenue Adam Bain, Rockfish Interactive CMO Dave Knox and Forbes.com CMO Network Editor Jenny Rooney, the latter two having driven the effort to bring the school's wide array of high-powered marketers back to campus.
Mr. George's challenge was surprisingly simple yet mind-numbingly complex: How to organize his company for social media given the constraints of a relatively modest budget for a spirits marketer and nearly 50 brands in the U.S. alone, or, as Mr. George put it in an interview: "How do you restrain the cost and the head count?"
It was no mere academic exercise. Mr. George is in the process of trying to solve the problem right now as grapples with how much of the social-media effort can practically be assigned to agencies and how much should be handled in-house.
"When you talk to students, they're so used to tests where there's always a right answer," Mr. George said. "So it's fun to put a challenge in front of them that doesn't necessarily have a right answer but has options."
What he got, Mr. George said, was "a very interesting take on how to integrate our old traditional 800-number customer-service organization within a social organization," Mr. George said. "Those are the people on the ground listening to people talk about your brand, who have a question or a complaint or a question about, "Where can I find it?'"
The students' solution was to do most of the work internally on the biggest brands, and for the smaller brands, "figure out a way to automate and gather data and use technology, so you don't have to spend so much money on your smallest brands," Mr. George said.
The students' solution, he said, is not unlike what Beam is already trying. The company recently piloted an internal social-listening organization. "But we're going to expand that," Mr. George said. "We're trying to decide whether to expand that for many brands or groups vs. trying to do it just on our biggest brands."
The drawback to outsourcing to agencies, he said, is that "someone can push the Facebook button and message you with questions about product quality, and the ad agency doesn't know how to answer those questions."
As a result, he said Beam is "starting to outsource less and bring more inside, but you can't do that when you have a hundred brands [at least globally]. You have to find a hybrid way."
Also in the audience for Mr. George's case presentation was a 1995 Miami alum, Twitter's Mr. Bain. He has a take on the subject, but declined to share it, letting the students find a solution.
"We get asked advice all the time in areas of governance, on social media -- who can touch the Twitter handle? And how does the marketer deliver content back out?" Mr. Bain said. "I just asked a lot of questions and let the students do the work. It turns out they know a ton about Twitter."
It wasn't exactly a recruiting trip, but Mr. George said that, coincidentally, about 10 of his 50 U.S. marketers are fellow Miami grads.
"There's something about the Midwest," Mr. Bain added, "just the humility of people here, that amount of hard work translates to Silicon Valley."
For Mr. George, the return to Miami also was a homecoming of a different sort—to the deodorant wars of the last decade. Mr. Schlegel (1999, marketing and history) and Mr. Knox (2003, marketing) are also P&G veterans who worked on the Old Spice and Secret brands while Mr. George was working for Unilever on the launch of Axe.
It was no small rivalry. Mr. George had a P&G doormat at the entrance of his Chicago office at Unilever and once bought a billboard for Degree, which tweaked Secret advertising, right outside the cafeteria at P&G's Cincinnati headquarters.
Having moved on, all were friendly at the Miami reunion. "We shared a lot of stories back and forth," said Mr. Schlegel. "I was working on Old Spice when Axe launched, and a lot of what we talked about was that we made each other better."
For his part, Mr. Schlegel got input from students on ways to revitalize the Louisville Slugger brand, finding the experience valuable given the students are in the target 15 to 22 demographic.
Bob Dahlstrom, chair of Miami's marketing department, hopes to do the event annually and perhaps create a board of advisers with marketer alums.
"The students got some great advice," he said, "about developing their skills, developing their networks and how to interview and pursue looking for jobs and being more strategic about first jobs."